Go See – London: John Baldessari at Tate Modern through January 10, 2010

November 3rd, 2009

Pure Beauty
1966-1968, Acrylic on canvas © John Baldessari, Courtesy of Baldessari Studio and Glenstone

Tate Modern are currently exhibiting the largest ever UK retrospective featuring the work of the prolific Californian artist, John Baldessari, through January 10. Tate Modern’s exhibition, John Baldessari: Pure Beauty, acts as a parallel to the Ed Ruscha exhibition only minutes away at the Hayward Gallery in London’s Southbank Centre; both artists employ humor and a compulsion toward language and American pop culture in their works.

Bloody Sundae
1987 Black and white photographs, vinyl paint © John Baldessari, Courtesy of Baldessari Studio

More text, images, video and related links after the jump….

Interview with John Baldessari via Tate Modern

Everything is Purged…
, 1966-68, Acrylic on canvas, The Sonnabend Collection © John Baldessari

Video via Vernissage TV

The exhibition is littered with Baldessari’s unique brand of Conceptualism, playing on Dadaist nihilism and irony. In his 1970, Cremation Project, the artist burnt his earlier paintings at a crematorium and bought a book-shaped urn with his name on it in which to place the ashes. Furthermore, Baldessari baked cookies from the ashes and attempted to feed them to his friends – only one person obliged. The incentive for Cremation Project was related to what Baldessari describes as “eternal return” – evoking the circle of life: pigment is made from the earth and eventually returns to it through digestion and excretion. In the above interview with Tate Modern, regarding this project, Baldessari merely smirks; “I was truly sick”.

Equally, he adopted the Dadaist commentary on authorship in art. Many of the artworks in the exhibition use found photographs or borrowed film stills. Moreover, in the text-paintings displayed, Baldessari removes himself entirely from the production line, employing other individuals to make and prime his canvases, as well as hiring a sign painter to actually paint them. In the late 1960s he disrupted the notions of artist’s eye by thoughtfully composing a photograph, setting up his camera perfectly, only to pick up the camera and move it (without consulting the view finder) to actually take the shot. In an interview, screened just outside the exhibition, he laughs about this describing it as “just a game I played with myself, I mean, who would care?”

Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell
1966-1968, Acrylic on canvas © John Baldessari, Courtesy of The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica

Kiss / Panic, 1984. Black and white photographs with oil tint © John Baldessari, Courtesy of Baldessari Studio and Glenstone

This exhibition is thoroughly playful and provocative. It is often funny, in a very droll way. In, I Will Not Make Anymore Boring Art – a film of Baldessari repetitively writing out his title, or The Artist Hitting Various Objects With a Golf Club he transforms the banal into the amusing. When the artist photographs his attempts to exhale cigar smoke in imitation of a small cloud or just waving at boats passing-by, the results are humorous because their charm and whimsy.

Like Ed Ruscha, Baldessari shows great reverence for words and their meaning. The words Baldessari uses in his works and his titles often create a tension between what is said and what is meant. For instance, he reflects on Clement Greenberg’s statement that art concerns aesthetic impact rather than ideas; “you can no more choose whether or not to like a work of art than you can choose to have sugar taste sweet or lemons sour.” The discordant collage of word and image provides a voice for irony similar to that of René Magritte.

1966- 1968, Photoemulsion on canvas with acrylic paint © John Baldessari, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Modern and Contemporary Art Council, Young Talent Purchase

For the later works exhibited the tact changes a little. The focus is Baldessari’s deviation from the traditional formal structure of artworks – namely the rectangular format of canvases and photographs. Bloody Sundae comprises two photographs arranged in an inverted T-shape. As the structures become more complicated so do the titles, trying to offer assistance in how to read the different components.

Starry Night Balanced On Triangulated Trouble,
1984, Black and White Photographs one tinted © John Baldessari, Courtesy of The Baldessari Studio and The Gersh Family Collection, Los Angeles

Various Shadows 1984, Gelatin silver prints © John Baldessari, Collection of Dana and Jim Tananbaum

Essentially, Baldessari’s work is concerned with how we see and interpret the world around us. He explains “doing art is the only thing I’ve come across that gives me any idea that I’m anywhere close to understanding what the universe is about. It all sounds very mystical, I know, but that’s what drives me.”

The exhibition will travel to Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona, 5 February-25 April 2010, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 20 June-12 September 2010, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 17 October 2010-9 January 2011.

Related Links:
Tate Modern Homepage
The Gently Rebellious Artist: John Baldessari
[Financial Times]
John Baldessari: a nose for beauty, an ear for truth [TimesOnline]
Art Market News [NYTimes]
Somebody Talk To… Jessica Morgan and John Baldessari [TATE Etc.]
Tate Modern opens most extensive John Baldessari retrospective in the UK [ArtDaily]
John Baldessari: Tate Modern [ArtForum]
John Baldessari at Tate Modern, Jonathan Jones[Guardian]
John Baldessari, Tate Modern – review by Helen Sumpter [Time Out]
John Baldessari: Pure Beauty/Tate Modern, London [Vernissage TV]